Thursday, December 24, 2020

Eric Woodhouse – The Story of a Second World War Veteran

Matthew Eric Woodhouse, or Eric to his family and friends was born on 5th of July 1924. After attending school in York, where he met some Hitler Youth on exchange, which we now know were spying for the Nazis, he started an apprenticeship at Leadhams Garage near Lendal Bridge in York. The garage he worked at was taken over by the Ministry of Supply to prepare military vehicles for the British army at the outbreak of war as most of the army’s vehicles had been left at Dunkirk. Eric’s main role was an engine mechanic on Churchill tanks, cars and trucks. Eric also worked on Monty’s car before it went to Egypt with the 8th Army. All work was over seen by officers from the army and eventually the  newly formed Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Regiment.

Eric was on fire watch duty on one of the nights of the Baedeker Blitz in York, a bombardment of five major cities by the Luftwaffe. These raids were over several nights between 25 April and 3rd May 1942 which in total left over 1600 dead and destroyed 50,000 homes.

On the night of 28th/29th April the bombers struck the city of York. Watching the aircraft overhead releasing their deadly cargo, he was armed only with a stirrup pump to douse the flames of any bombs that landed on the garage. On this night the bombs were falling relentlessly, huge explosions lit up entire streets and several major buildings were hit. Perched on top of the roof of his garage he must have felt both helpless and nervous at the thought of what he was witnessing around him.

Eric decided to have a break and whilst downstairs in the garage, the place where he had been sat took a direct hit, the entire garage a mass of rubble, flames, smoke and dust. Scrambling to safety it was obvious that his decision to take a break saved his life. Eric’s father, also called Matthew, was the duty station manager at York train station on the night of the raids and thankfully he also survived. Others weren’t so lucky, the death toll in this city was 79.

It is incredible at just how many of his friends did not survive the war. Kenneth Fox went to school with Eric and died when his plane crashed upon landing on the way back from an air raid. A Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve for 514 Squadron, he was just 20 years old; at Kenneth's funeral in York Eric was a pall bearer for his lost friend.

Another school friend also in the RAFVR was James Crawford. He was also killed at a young age with 61 Squadron on 7th December 1941. At just 17 years old his body was never recovered and has no known grave.

Eric moved to Bridlington in 1957 and ran a chain of very successful garages for many years, retiring in the mid-1980s and then being head hunted to work for Thompsons in Hull as their service manager. Eric was married to Olga, who he met when she was working at Leadhams garage for the Ministry of Supply during the war. They had one son, Matthew who sadly passed away in 2015, Olga passed in 2017.

The photograph of him (left) shows him with a stirrup pump from the Second World War at his home in Bridlington.

My aim was to interview Eric when the restrictions were lifted and ask him more about his wartime service so that none of his stories were forgotten, but unfortunately it was too late. Eric passed away just a few weeks ago, on 22nd November 2020 at the age of 96.

I would like to thank his good friend and neighbour Martin Barmby who spent time with him in his final years and spent many hours chatting about his life and war stories and who has given me the opportunity to highlight his career and experiences today. Eric served his country in the Second World War as a vehicle mechanic and without the efforts of people like him in their reserved occupations, the Allies would not have been able to win the war against the Nazis.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Disaster at Ladbroke Grove

Rail disasters are not uncommon, since the days of the first steam powered railway engine there have been incidents that have cost lives and left thousands injured. But as the years go by the safety of the rail networks of the UK became more strict and the disasters became fewer, but that doesn't mean that they were completely eradicated. Over 20 years ago a crash hit the headlines that would shock the capital and leave the rest of the country questioning the integrity of our transport industry and the honesty of the people watching over our safety and comfort during the countless rail journeys.  

In the early morning of Tuesday 5th October 1999, at 0806, a Thames Train commuter journey set off from Paddington station bound for Bedwyn in Wiltshire. Coming in the opposite direction was a faster train, a First Great Western service from Cheltenham due to terminate at Paddington. The two trains had no reason to believe that anything was wrong, but just two minutes out of Paddington, as the Thames Train was approaching Ladbroke Grove, the driver passed a red signal that was obscured for some reason, possibly due to the sun shining directly on the light. 

Either way, the two trains collided head on and devastation commenced. As twisted wreckage flew into the air and in every direction, a fireball ignited and flames shot across the carriages. People trapped within the crumpled cars had to fight for survival as the sudden impact combined with the searing heat of the fire left them with no choice but to scramble to safety as quickly as possible. 

Just a few minutes after the collision, the first fire teams had been called and were on scene immediately. Rescue teams had a huge job of both fighting the flames and dragging survivors to safety. Smoke rising into the air could be seen for miles around as the railway lines were closed. Although the fire was ferocious, it was extinguished fairly quickly, leading to fire teams being able to safely extract what they now found were burns victims as well as other major injuries. 

By now it was obvious that this was a huge incident, the head on collision killed both drivers instantly and it was clear that passengers were also amongst the dead. It would be several days before they would get a final death toll as they combed the charred wreckage for passengers. Eventually they would get a final list of 31 dead, with over 400 injured. 

The questions that were now being asked as the wreckage was lifted off the tracks led to several high profile inquiries and some damning reports into the laxity of the companies involved in ensuring that passengers safety was adhered to. Thames Trains were fined £2 million for violations of health and safety, Network Rail (who looked after the tracks) were fined £4 million and the official inquiry led by Lord Cullen led to the founding of the Rail Accidents Investigation Branch. 

Today a memorial garden is situated overlooking the scene of the disaster next to a branch of Sainsbury's. In the small wooded area there is a monument to remember the 31 who died and provides a place to go away from the outsiders temporarily and to reflect on a rail disaster that despite the tragedy, actually changed the British rail network for the better. For those who were there that day, no amount of regulations and reflection can dampen the horrors that were seen and felt on that day in October when hell came to Ladbroke Grove.